Stranger in a Strange Land: Authorial politics override the story. DNF

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsStranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein science fiction book reviewsStranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein was one of the most influential writers of sci-fi in the 20th century. He published more than thirty novels, several of which won awards, and many more received nominations. Considered one of the ‘big three’ alongside Asimov and Clarke — the American perspective, that is — Heinlein’s agenda included independence, personal responsibility, freedom, and the influence of religion and government on society. Stranger in a Strange Land, arguably his most famous book — and perhaps most controversial — is the subject of this review.

Stranger in a Strange Land is the story of Valentine Michael Smith. The only remaining human of the Mars settlers, he is brought back to Earth and kept under wraps by the US State Department. Raised by Martians, Smith’s cultural perspective is radically different, not to mention he has the ability to control body and mind telekinetically. As the sole survivor of the Mars missions Smith is seen as “owning” Mars in the government’s eyes, and is therefore protected and treated as a pawn in larger world affairs by US officials. Jubal Harshaw, retired attorney-at-law, comes into contact with Smith one day and kidnaps him in the hopes of protecting him from the various social and political interests at work while plugging his own agenda in the process. Smith, as innocent as a child, is allowed to develop by Harshaw, giving the cultural instincts he acquired on Mars free reign on Earth. Where these instincts take him flies in the face of all that’s thought “right,” telling Smith’s tragic tale in the process.

Heinlein does not tread lightly in Stranger in a Strange Land; sexuality, religion, and politics all play a strong hand in the novel’s exposition. Free love, the greed and power mongering of organized religion, and the manipulative aspects of government are expounded in near non-fictional form. These are precisely the reasons that the book is considered ‘bold’ by some and ‘controversial’ by others, so readers with dogmatic tendencies to their beliefs should be warned that Heinlein has a very contemporary agenda for his story and one, if taken too far out of context, that is easily misunderstood.

In order to write further about Stranger in a Strange Land, I must switch to the first person so that you will know the complaints which follow are not based on anything more than personal preference. As a big fan of sci-fi, I’m aware of the position the book holds in many “best of all time” lists and the resulting ire I’m about to draw. However, I just can’t bring myself to like Stranger in a Strange Land. And I tried. I slogged through page after page, hoping to reach a point where Heinlein’s ranting ceased, where the dialogue and plotting behaved like something more than a super-bouncy ball, where characters used a voice that wasn’t so obviously the author’s, or where women were treated with equality. But halfway through, with no sign of change in the horizon, I quit.

I write in an apologetic tone because I know there is some value to Heinlein’s message. Like in Robert Silverberg’s A Time of Changes, I can see that Heinlein is focusing his energy/angst on perceived problems with modern civilization, proposing his own 1960s counter-culture influenced ideas in their stead. (His commentary on the church is in particular witty and a nice touch of imagination.) But it’s about presentation. So, simply be warned, the book is not everyone’s cup of tea. The book is written in a combination of moods: wry humor, sharp rebuttal, and overt, borderline satirical, commentary, and if this is your preference, by all means have a go. Otherwise, Harshaw’s locution will jar.

In the end, Stranger in a Strange Land is not for everybody. Those who like it seem to love it. Its divisive nature was, for me, based on presentation of themes (i.e. an unfocused, tumultuous narrative and seething authorial voice), but I imagine most who dislike the book do so based on principle. Heinlein openly challenges several widespread beliefs including religious influence, government control, sexual taboos, etc. Discussion of these issues occupies the majority of the book’s 528 pages, limiting the underlying story. Thus, for those not bothered by polemical dialogue and lengthy sections of navel-gazing while banging on a pulpit, the book has a chance to be great.

Stranger in a Strange Land — (1961) Publisher: Here at last is the complete, uncut version of Heinlein’s all-time masterpiece, the brilliant novel that grew from a cult favorite to a bestseller to a classic in a few short years. It is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, the man from Mars who taught humankind grokking and water-sharing. And love.

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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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  1. I’m a *little* startled that you didn’t finish it, but only a little. I read this book in the 1970s and adored it, of course. I even had a GROK sticker on my binder (I know, I know… ) In my crowd, it was to society what DUNE was to the ecology movement. However, even back then I distinctly remember large parts of it being pretty boring, without much happening.

    I suspect this is another book that will be remembered not because it’s so good, but because of the impact it had and its placement in history.

    • I would love to see a GROK sticker! Was there a thought bubble, like in a comic strip, with “grok” written in it? (I was going to write “I’m trying to grok a GROK sticker,” but thought it best to keep the comment honest.)

      • GROK Sticker, let me remember back. The background was neon green, kind of like lime jello when you shine a light through it. The font… sort of a Peter Max bubble font, black if I recall. The size of a pack of cigarettes. It might have had a Peter Maxish bubble graphic around it. That’s the best I can do.

  2. I also gave up on this book. I’ve decided that I love Heinlein’s books for children, but I can’t stand many of his books for adults. I consider myself a libertarian, but I really don’t want to read his rants (or anybody else’s) when I sit down to read a novel. Plus, Heinlein was such a perverted creep…

    • I was unaware of the perverted creepiness. Pray tell!

      • Well, there seems to be a lot of incest, fondling, young girls, nudity, spanking, polygamy, Oedipus complex, etc in many of his novels for adults.

  3. Paul Connelly /

    I read Stranger in a Strange Land as a teenager, meaning a long long time back. It belongs in a class of books (only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Atlas Shrugged, but there are others) that reminded me of being 14 and getting talked down to by the 16 year olds who obviously thought they were the smartest, most daring people around. And they were smart, just not that smart, not in a way that was very connected to reality. It’s hard to get much enjoyment out of reading books like that, even when they inject some melodrama in the occasional gaps between the lectures.

    • Have you read Kim Stanley Robinson? If you have, I’m curious which side of the fence you consider him: ranter or mightily informed proponent?

      I write that to play devil’s advocate. I too have my druthers with Rand and Heinlein, but I see Robinson doing much the same, just with very dissimilar political views.

      • Paul Connelly /

        I read one book (maybe Icehenge?) by Robinson quite a while back, but I guess it didn’t make enough of an impression to make me read anything else by him. I read a lot of Heinlein (and Andre Norton) as a teenager and liked most of his juveniles, especially Tunnel in the Sky, Citizen of the Galaxy, Time For the Stars, and Starship Troopers. Also, some of his more adult novels, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Waldo, and Double Star. But I read Stranger in a Strange Land after Glory Road and Farnham’s Freehold, and that made three in a row that I did not like at all, so I pretty much quit reading him at that point. Too many other authors were doing more interesting stuff, and doing a better job of making it a good story too.

  4. I fully agree with Jesse on this. I can’t think of a book I disliked more back when I read it as a teen in the 80s. It just seemed totally irrelevant, preachy, and boring. I’ve heard the theory that Heinlein really hated hippies and flower power and intended this to ridicule their movement, but discovered to his chagrin that the book was embraced by those very same people! Whatever the case, it feels like an artifact of the past that does not function as a SF novel at all.

    • Paul Connelly /

      They were still beatniks at the point Heinlein wrote this, it was another 3-4 years before they mutated into hippies.But Heinlein had a longstanding attraction to alternate forms of marriage and “free love” type arrangements. At that time, that kind of rap was mainly about a man’s sexual liberation, with only pro forma concern for whatever a woman might want.

      The trouble with Heinlein’s inveighing against sexual “uptightness”, like Rand’s castigating of altruism, is that these supposed emotional roadblocks on our way to enlightenment have a strong biological component that’s been selected for throughout our evolution–they are not purely the result of “bad teaching” or “social conditioning” as most such things were thought to be back in the ’60s. Social theorists that try to wish those “negative attitudes” away render themselves irrelevant pretty quickly, although if they catch the fancy of powerful people they can cause a lot of bloodshed first. But that’s why the fictional representation of those theories in action portray the exponents of the author’s viewpoint as an enlightened elite who are either tragically thwarted by narrow-mided society or who sweep on to victory on the crest of their obvious superiority (depending on the type of story that’s being told). Perfect for 16 year old wannabe elite intellectuals, tedious for everyone else.

  5. Dennis G. Berdanis /

    I struggled with this one too. Took me a long time to finally pull it off the shelf and then several attempts to get through it. Not a page turner like Starship Troopers. I always felt like a bit of a failure as I count myself a huge scifi/sf/fantasy fan and struggled to enjoy this “great” one. Glad to see I wasn’t alone.

  6. JD Popham /

    ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ was published in 1961 and was in process for about ten years prior to that. Betty Friedan would not publish The Feminine Mystique for another two years. Oral contraceptives were just becoming generally available in the US. The sexual revolution and feminism were still very much in the starting blocks for the general public.

    The book was intended to be controversial, though not in the way a reader with 2015 sensibilities might suppose. The women of Stranger are much more assertive and sexually liberated than women were usually portrayed at the time. They have a degree of agency that, while stunted when viewed from our perspective, was shocking in 1961. They are assertive for the time – talking back to the boss and working as a group to push back against a male dominated legal/political system.

    ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ was the first science fiction book to gain an audience in the mainstream market and be listed on the New York Times best seller list. It might seem tepid stuff today, but it hit the popular culture of the time like a lightning bolt.

    The second half of ‘Stranger’ is, indeed, a tough go. It tends to get long-winded, taken up largely with dialogue that holds forth on the social issues surrounding Valentine Michael Smith and his Martian-oriented culture. ‘Stranger’ challenges the notion that the social mores of the US in the early 20th century (or in any culture) are fixed and universal. It could be said that ‘Stranger’ is one of the first popular novels to make a case for what modern conservatives would call ‘moral relativism’.

    Beyond its social controversy, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ is a seminal work in social science fiction. Much of what comes after rests on its foundation. Further, the market success of ‘Stranger’ was the first significant breach in the wall between Science Fiction and ‘legitimate’ literature.

    ‘Stranger’, like other older novels, may not be a fun read for a modern audience, but it is a critical read for anyone interested in developing more than a casual understanding of the Science Fiction genre.

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